Champions Cup beckons for Connacht as West attempts to wake once more
Make no mistake about it, this is the biggest game that the Sportsground has held in quite some time.
Come three o’clock this afternoon, the old stadium will be packed to the rafters as, once again, the West attempts to wake.
Not that they have been sleeping mind you, but securing Champions Cup status for next season would ensure that Connacht are back where they feel they belong.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher, particularly because Cardiff Blues have their own sights set on the Guinness PRO14 play-off spot that is also on offer.
Connacht, however, remain firmly in control of their own destiny and even though defeat today would not necessarily crush their dreams, Andy Friend’s side will not fancy having to go to Thomond Park in two weeks looking to salvage their season.
That kind of thought won’t enter Connacht’s mindset because they have made so many strides this season that they know they are a match for anyone on their day, especially in their own back yard.
That said, Cardiff will pose plenty of threats as they did to Munster last weekend, but for all the recent improvements that the Welsh side have made, they are still vulnerable defensively.
Friend has re-established the feel-good mood out West, having fully bought into the culture – now the head coach must ensure that his side take that next step.
Earlier this week, the well-liked Australian proved that he has a ruthless streak to him too when the club decided to offload a raft players ahead of next season.
Given how Connacht’s squad isn’t exactly flush with numbers, it would suggest that Friend is planning on bringing some new faces to Galway, so from that end, he won’t need to be told that his task will be made much easier if Connacht are back playing amongst Europe’s elite.
He can at least recall a host of front-line players, which massively strengthens the starting XV he has named. Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell’s centre partnership has been one of the real positives this season and the dynamic duo’s battle with Cardiff’s explosive Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo could go a long way to deciding which side emerges victorious.
Interestingly, Caolin Blade is preferred to Kieran Marmion with Friend clearly rewarding players on form. Blade has been superb and he will be demanding that the pack provide good, clean ball for him to feed his fellow in-form half-back Jack Carty, who has proven throughout the campaign that he can run the show.
Ireland pair Quinn Roux (virus) and Finlay Bealham (hand) will be missed in that regard, but this is a day for the forwards to deliver a massive collective performance.
After a difficult time off the pitch in the last while, Ultan Dillane is back to his best. You get the feeling that this is an ideal game for the powerful lock to thrive in.
Not that long ago, it seemed almost impossible to imagine a Connacht back-row without John Muldoon in it, but it says a lot about the kind impact that Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a and captain Jarrad Butler have made since joining the club that Muldoon’s retirement has not been felt as much as many Westerners feared.